I am old enough to remember listening to Jack Benny on radio with my dad and also watching his TV show in the 1950s. This new dvd presents some of his early TV shows, and watching the first one brought to mind the kind of comedy which he and George Burns and Bob Hope immortalized.
Recognized as a leading American entertainer of the 20th century, Benny portrayed character roles as a miser, and someone who played the violin badly. In fact he was a talented musician and a generous man. In character, he would always claim to be 39 years of age, regardless of his actual age at the time. When he died the day after Christmas 1974, he was 80.
Benny was known for physical comedy and perfect timing—long, drawn out stares and grimaces—and the ability to create laughter with a pregnant pause or a simple expression, such as his signature exasperated "Well!"
His radio programs were popular for more than 20 years beginning in 1932, and he started a TV program in 1950 (overlapping with his radio show for several years). Critics observed that radio comedy lost something on TV, because listeners used their imagination when Benny opened his vault or cranked up his aged Maxwell car. Seeing those actions were not funny. To compensate, the TV show developed elaborate skits with guest stars, such as Gary Cooper, Red Skelton, and Bob Hope.
One of the “lost” episodes was built around Benny’s agonized performance as a violin soloist in Carnegie Hall, with fellow comic Spike Jonz conducting the orchestra. As Benny sawed away at his violin, Jonz fought with several of the musicians and eventually pulled out a pistol, which he used to shoot down the soloist.
On the show poor old Benny seemed to ignore the noisy distractions, although with each shot by Jonz he sank lower, winding up on the floor while still playing his heart out. In reality, Benny played a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, raising $50,000 to aid in its preservation.
One innovation in TV advertising pioneered by Benny was the “integrated commercial.” While taking a nap just before he went on stage, he dreamed that the 19th century composer Mendelssohn came to his dressing room to praise his playing. However, the composer’s great interest in a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes enabled Benny to present the mid-show commercial without missing a beat.
The reason some of Benny’s TV shows were “lost” is that in the 1950s network executives had no thought of “reruns” or syndication of comedy shows. The only copy kept was a kinescope, produced by using a movie camera to photograph a TV screen while the show was on the air. Converting those to quality video required a great deal of restoration work.
A retired English professor, Dr. Jerry Lincecum teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any topic: email@example.com